PARK CITY, Utah - A slave rebellion and a personal political story came out on top at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday night.
After bootstrapping his film for seven years, African American actor-director-producer Nate Parker brought his historical drama The Birth of a Nation, about the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Va., to the festival and took home the two biggest dramatic film prizes: the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award.
Meant to echo and address the racism of D.W. Griffith's century-old, epic silent film of the same name, Parker's film practically stares down 2016 audiences and preaches a response, civil or otherwise, as it piles on escalating outrages that lead to Turner's ax-wielding rebellion, a two-day uprising that killed 60 white slave owners and their families in their beds before 200 or more slaves were cut down or strung up.
"I made this film for one reason - with the hope of creating change agents," Parker told the audience at its Sundance premiere. "Our history has been desperately sanitized."
Gabrielle Union, who stars in the film as a slave bought at auction and later raped, made the link to present-day police killings on U.S. city streets.
Fox Searchlight paid a Sundance on-site, record-setting $17.5 million to release the film in theaters, as Parker rejected a higher $20 million bid by Netflix that would only stream it.
The winning documentary, Weiner, is an unusual behind-the-scenes campaign film following Anthony Weiner - forced to resign his congressional seat after a sexting scandal in 2011 - on his failed run for mayor of New York City in 2013 (when new lewd texts were revealed). The film also focuses on the marriage of Weiner and Huma Abedin, a key aide to Hillary Clinton.
It won the Grand Jury documentary prize for its co-directors Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner aide) and Elyse Steinberg, who dismissed speculation that the final cut eliminated footage harmful to Clinton's presidential campaign. "There was no footage taken out" in response to pressure from Clinton, Steinberg said following a screening.
The drama jury awarded best direction to Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan for Swiss Army Man, starring Paul Dano as a castaway stuck on an island who finds hope when a corpse (played, sort of, by Daniel Radcliffe) washes up.
Roger Ross Williams won best director for his documentary Life, Animated, about the effect of Disney-animated characters on an autistic boy.
Shut out of the prizes but picking up a solid distribution deal, instead, director Meera Menon's Equity stars Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), who plays a Wall Street IPO specialist.
Produced by Broad Street Pictures (with Philadelphia standing in for New York), the film's actor-producer partners are Alysia Reiner (Orange Is the New Black) and Haverford native Sarah Megan Thomas, who is married to a former Lehman Brothers derivatives specialist. Thomas, who plays Gunn's treacherous assistant, said the tax credits arranged by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office "came back to the film," stretching the budget.
Also passed by for a prize, Richard Tanne's first film in the competition, South Side With You, lets us eavesdrop on the the first date of a future president and his first lady: Michelle Robinson - played here by Tika Sumpter, insisting the daylong date isn't a date but a professional courtesy, of sorts - and Barack Obama, played by Parker Sawyers, ricocheting between jazz-riff callow and suddenly on-point serious. She gets the chocolate ice cream cone; he gets the girl.